Why was Tracey Emin’s bed a shock to the audience?

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Tracey Emin - My Bed, 1998, Box frame, mattress, linens, pillows and various objects, Overall display dimensions variable, Tate London, 2017
Tracey Emin – My Bed, 1998, box frame, mattress, linens, pillows and various objects, overall display dimensions variable, Tate London, 2017

Published on: Sunday July 28, 2019

Last updated

Introduction

Tracey Emin’s work is one that has always been shrouded in revelation and discovery, where she uses her real-life events as the inspiration for her works. So far, her art has become varied to include video installations, paintings, drawings, sculpture, photography, and even needlework. Emin’s work is characterized by an imminence and frequently sexually challenging boldness that places her within the traditions of the feminist dissertation. Emin’s work, therefore, resonates firmly with the tenets of feminism.

Recurring themes of Emin’s work

Through her work, Emin highlights her hopes, successes, and humiliations in candid and excruciating detail. Her work borders on both the catastrophic and the humorous, revealing intimate details of her experiences through the years. This paradoxical perspective, which is both at once daring and confessional, as well as self-absorbed and self-deprecating, is what has earned her several nominations and awards including the highly coveted Turner Prize which she was awarded in 1999.

Tracey Emin & the Turner Prize

Although nominated, she did not win the Turner prize in 1999, but she received significant praise for her installation, My Bed, which featured Emin’s unmade bed surrounded by an array of personal items. My Bed was created to explore the various symbolic qualities of a bed as a location where birth, sex, and death take place.

Tracey Emin - My Bed, 1998, Box frame, mattress, linens, pillows and various objects, Overall display dimensions variable, Saatchi Gallery
Tracey Emin – My Bed, 1998, box frame, mattress, linens, pillows and various objects, overall display dimensions variable, Saatchi Gallery

Inspiration

Few artists in the world have been able to express themselves as well and as intensely as Tracey Emin. Known widely in British art circles for her daring ability for self-expression, Emin has been creating art that defies societal norms and previously held philosophies of femininity for years. Emin’s work can best be described as confessional owing to her use of personal history as the subject of her work. She is known for using her body as a medium in her performances as well as her self-portraits.

What Emin is most recognized for

She is most recognized for her extremely personal and confessional work, which is commonly reported through her fame and the use of media. Through the years that she has been in business, she has highlighted personal traumatic events that she has endured in the course of her life, including alcoholism, sexism, unreported rape, promiscuity and more. The quality of her work is often contested, which has further helped to propel her success.

How the audience gets engaged

By publicly airing her dirty laundry through her artwork to the public, her work seems to engage audiences at a deeply personal level, which makes it easier to interpret and understand. Her courage and willingness to be vulnerable have brought attention to the discrepancies that exist between men’s and women’s ability to engage with certain issues of alcoholism, gender roles, sex and more.

Some of her most controversial works

Some of her most controversial works include Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, which was created between 1963 and 1995, Every Part of Me Is Bleeding and Feeling Pregnant III. The recurring themes in her artwork include rape, sex, abortion and although she is regarded as one of the most controversial artists of her generation, her works never fail to attract attention from audiences and celebrities, who are ardent fans of her controversial work.

Tracey Emin - Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, 1995, Installation, Appliqued tent, mattress and light, 121.9 x 245 x 215 cm (48.03 x 96.46 x 84.65 in)
Tracey Emin – Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, 1995, Installation, Appliqued tent, mattress and light, 121.9 x 245 x 215 cm (48.03 x 96.46 x 84.65 in)

Tracey Emin - Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, 1995, Installation, Appliqued tent, mattress and light, 121.9 x 245 x 215 cm (48.03 x 96.46 x 84.65 in)
Tracey Emin – Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, 1995, Installation, Appliqued tent, mattress and light, 121.9 x 245 x 215 cm (48.03 x 96.46 x 84.65 in)

Artwork description and composition

My Bed was first created in 1998 and was exhibited at the Tate in 1999 after being shortlisted for the Truner Prize. My Bed was created after Emin survived a mental breakdown in 1998 after which she spent four days almost unconscious, and highly intoxicated on vodka and cigarettes. The scene around her bed highlighted the breakdown and features empty bottles that were laid out, used cigarette packets, blood-stained underwear, used and unused condoms, packets of contraceptive pills, waist belts and an array of other items. When Emin left to help herself in the toilet, she quickly noticed that her bed had turned into a work of art that chronicled one of the darkest moments of her life. In response, Emin opted to transform it into an art installation. Although nominated for the prestigious Turner prize, My Bed received a lot of criticism and backlash especially from circles that were not quite prepared to deal with her level of conceptualism and how open she was with her sexual experiences.

Installation view of Tracey Emin's My Bed, 1998, Box frame, mattress, linens, pillows and various objects, Overall display dimensions variable, Tate London, 2017
Installation view of Tracey Emin’s My Bed, 1998, Box frame, mattress, linens, pillows and various objects, Overall display dimensions variable, Tate London, 2017

Video: Tracey Emin on ‘My Bed’

3min 1sec

Analysis

The primary idea with My Bed was to push the boundaries of decency and blur the lines between societal norms. With My Bed, any normal human being would have cleaned up the mess and thrown away any unnecessary items in the bin. But since Tracey opted to highlight her suffering as a work of art, the entire sordid scene ended up exploring the experience of anxiety and depression through a personal and intimate lens, making it much more approachable and easier for the audience to relate to.

Installation view of Tracey Emin's My Bed, 1998, Box frame, mattress, linens, pillows and various objects, Overall display dimensions variable, Tate London, 2017
Installation view of Tracey Emin’s My Bed, 1998, Box frame, mattress, linens, pillows and various objects, Overall display dimensions variable, Tate London, 2017

Auction & Value

On July 1, 2014, My Bed sold at Christies auction1 for 2,546,500 GBP ($4,351,969). The bidder was Jay Jopling of White Cube gallery who acquired the work on behalf of Count Duerckheim, a German industrialist.

Where is Tracey Emin’s bed?

According to Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, the current owner of My Bed, Count Christian Duerckheim, agreed to loan this work to the Tate “for a period of at least 10 years2.

The work is currently not on display. Check the artwork page on Tate.org.uk3 for updates.

Tracey Emin's My Bed on , Turner Contemporary in Margate
Tracey Emin’s My Bed on display at Turner Contemporary in Margate
Photo: Manu Palomeque

Conclusion

The point of the piece was to elevate the experiences of women to a level of imaginative expression. Even though the piece was shocking and unacceptable by many people’s standards, it consequently played a very important role in breaking numerous societal taboos regarding the female form, sexuality, as well as shame.

More

More by Tracey Emin

Related readings
  1. https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/tracey-emin-b-1963-my-bed-5813479-details.aspx/
  2. https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-28541568
  3. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/emin-my-bed-l03662
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